Fatal W.Va. mine fire blamed on multiple safety violations

Problems went uncorrected for a long time, investigation shows

November 11, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CHARLESTON, W.Va. --Safety violations that went uncorrected cost two coal miners their lives in a fire on a mine conveyer belt in January, a state report has found.

The deaths, at the Aracoma Alma No.1 Mine in southern West Virginia, came just two weeks after 12 men were killed in an accident at the Sago Mine in the northern part of the state.

Investigators have found that a previous fire at Aracoma Alma No. 1 went unreported and that a fire alarm did not work, a critical wall was missing, a water line had no water in it and an automatic fire sprinkler was broken.

Survivors described a desperate scramble to put the fire out. They said they emptied three fire extinguishers before they were forced to flee.

"If we didn't have these problems, absolutely those men would not have died," said J. Davitt McAteer, who led the Aracoma investigation for the office of Gov. Joe Manchin III. "The company did not comply with the laws."

The mine is operated by Aracoma Coal, a subsidiary of Massey Energy Co., based in Richmond, Va.

McAteer said the testimony his team gathered "suggests there were profound problems at this mine" that went uncorrected over a long period.

McAteer, who was an assistant secretary of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Bill Clinton, said the deaths were directly linked to the "compromised" ventilation system.

He said a wall 5 feet tall and 8 feet wide was missing, which allowed thick smoke to obscure what should have been a clear escape route. The absence of the wall would have been "impossible to miss" during inspections, he said.

McAteer's investigation is one of five into the accident. In April, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia announced that the federal mine agency had referred issues to prosecutors for possible criminal proceedings. The authorities have declined to elaborate.

Investigators for the State Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training have already released a separate report. The state has issued seven citations directly related to the accident to Massey Energy. The office also cited 16 employees, mostly managers, for knowingly violating safety rules.

In a statement, a Massey Energy spokesman said, "It appears that deficiencies at the Alma No.1 mine were not fully recognized by mine personnel or by state or federal inspectors."

The statement added that the company would not have further comment until it had studied McAteer's report.

Since the accident, the federal mine agency's district manager for the area and two supervisors in charge of inspecting the mine have announced their retirements.

Chris Hamilton, the executive vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said that McAteer's findings were serious but that the conditions he found "were very isolated to that mine."

Since the beginning of the year, 45 coal miners have died on the job nationally, more than in any of the past 10 years. Half of those deaths have occurred in West Virginia.

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